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While the Bush Administration’s public integrity lawyers are busy staking out a Democratic governor’s rendez-vous with an expensive call-girl, and attempting to shut down the work of a state legislature in order to probe the teaching plans of Alabama legislators who moonlight in junior colleges, the largest corruption scandal in American history has all but disappeared. It’s worth taking a second to ask: Why did the Public Integrity Section completely lose interest in the most important public corruption scandal in the nation’s history?
Back in the administration of Warren G. Harding, of course, there was the Teapot Dome Scandal. It was the biggest political corruption affair until the arrival of Team Bush. But when Bush and Rove occupied the White House, their top retainers started remaking the world of Washington lobbying. “Mr. Republican” from this period was Jack Abramoff, and his sidekick was former Bob Riley legislative assistant Michael Scanlon. Abramoff’s operations entailed extensive dealings with Rove and Bush and with a very large chunk of the Congressional G.O.P. leadership. Indeed, much of it seems to have flowed right out of the office of Tom DeLay.
In 2005, Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, two of the most astute observers on the Washington scene, called the game for Abramoff and his crew. They had developed the biggest political scam operation in America’s history. In fact it exceeded Teapot Dome by an order of several magnitudes. So now that we’re some five years into the Abramoff investigation, what has happened, exactly? It mysteriously dead-ended. Most of the major branches of the investigation went absolutely nowhere. And it seems that the Justice Department just couldn’t come up with the resources to explore most the leads that turned up.
Just a few days back, there was a mini-flash concerning Abramoff on the other side of the world. The story barely made it into the American news, courtesy of the ABA Journal, which reported an indictment and linked to it. The Wall Street Journal then noted the account on its law blog.
According to the indictment, Abramoff and the law firm whose Washington lobbying operations he ran, Greenberg Traurig, received $324,000 in lobbying fees from a Guam court administrator. The indictment claims that the money was paid in circumvention of disbursement rules. Abramoff and the firm were charged with theft by deception, among other charges.
“This indictment involves rogue conduct by Jack Abramoff. We strongly deny these charges and are confident we will prevail when all the facts are known,” the law firm said in a statement, adding that the charges will have no impact on its business.
But one of the most remarked-about aspects of the current action is this: the Justice Department and federal prosecutors are nowhere to be found. The case is being brought by local authorities on Guam.
So just what happened to the Abramoff investigation mounted by the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section? A lot of people have been asking that question. It mysteriously fizzled into nothing. Most recently, the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein focused on the fact that the investigation pointed to large-scale financial irregularities involving G.O.P. campaigns in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, none of which were ever investigated or acted upon. Similarly, the early Abramoff ties ran straight in to the White House and linked him to presidential advisor Karl Rove. This likewise was never investigated. Indeed, the Bush Justice Department was extremely aggressive about Abramoff’s dealings with the Bush White House—it repeatedly intervened to block public disclosure of those dealings and seems to have winked and smiled at suggestions that critical records be destroyed. In fact, its conduct is more consistent with obstruction of justice than with a criminal investigation.
Might there be a reason why the Abramoff investigation ran out of gas and plummeted into the ocean in some undisclosed location? Well, the connections to Rove and Bush are obvious. But even more troubling are the Abramoff ties to the Justice Department itself, particularly in the form of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Here are just some of the interesting intersections:
in 1997, John Mashburn left his position as Legislative Director for Senator John Ashcroft and signed on to lobby for Preston Gates, where Jack Abramoff was the Government Affairs Counselor. Mashburn very quickly became enmeshed in the dirtiest of the Abramoff dealings, including the Northern Marianas, Mississippi Choctaw and Future of Puerto Rico accounts.
In 1997, a group called Toward Tradition, whose chairman was Jack Abramoff, hired Ashcroft as a guest speaker.
In 1997, another Abramoff client paid for a trip to the Pacific by another of Ashcroft’s legislative assistants.
In 1999, Ashcroft participated in the famous Abramoff-organized junket to the Tartan Tournament at St. Andrew’s, Scotland.
Jack Abramoff was a major contributor to Ashcroft’s 2000 re-election effort, in which Ashcroft was defeated by a dead man.
Kevin Ring, another key Ashcroft insider, who advised Ashcroft on judicial nominations among other things, quickly emerged as a member of Jack Abramoff’s inner circle.
As questions were raised about Abramoff’s illicit dealings in the Northern Marianas, and the U.S. Attorney there began a probe, he was promptly removed from office–a step which only Ashcroft could have implemented.
So John Ashcroft had no shortage of burning reasons to suffocate the Abramoff investigation. All of these points were cited in the demand for a special prosecutor to handle the Abramoff matter. Ashcroft denied these requests, and insisted that the Abramoff questions be handled in the normal course by his Justice Department. Then Ashcroft was succeeded by Alberto Gonzales, whose prime function was to stand as a guard dog for the White House, insuring that the criminal conduct that occurred at 1600 Pennsyvlania Avenue stayed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
So why did the Abramoff investigation run out of gas and disappear? Does anyone seriously question why? It’s another reason why the bread-and-circus tales of prostitutes in the Mayflower Hotel are so useful.
More from Scott Horton:
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Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature